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5 CIO focus areas for the next 5 years

At the Fall 2014 Member Meeting of CUCCIO (October 15 – 17 in Winnipeg), we’ll be exploring the future of higher ed IT in Canada. In lead-up to those discussions, we asked two member CIOs – Dwight Fischer, CIO at Dalhousie University and Tariq Al-Idrissi, CIO at Trent University – to provide their perspectives on the most important issues for CIOs to monitor and manage over the next several years.

In addition to highlighting important to-do’s, these gentlemen argue that the successful management of higher ed IT may require a re-envisioning of what the role of CIO means in the first place.

1. Data centre management

As Tariq explains, the CIO has traditionally been in charge of the data centre, system admins, power, renewal and all other considerations that come with building and managing IT infrastructure. But as Dwight elaborates, that needs to change.

“For any schools sitting on big data centres, it’s a matter of time before they need renewal,” Dwight says. “It could cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to upgrade your data centres, but that’s an unsustainable model. Individual schools cannot sustain individual data centres – and why would you?  

“Software vendors are racing to provide cloud-based versions of their software, and there are opportunities to partner with other schools or large-scale providers of infrastructure as a service,” he continues. “It’s all forcing a change in our mentality away from the data centre model we have all grown. We’re shifting toward providing, provisioning, connecting and helping people use it – not writing software or maintaining infrastructure. The shift is starting to happen already as organizations are taking email, collaboration tools and learning management systems to cloud-hosted solutions.”

2. Network capacity and security

Canada’s higher ed institutions are seeing huge increases in network demand.

“There are more individuals with more devices, consuming more bandwidth. Plus, there are more inanimate objects being connected to our networks,” Dwight says. “We see this demand continuing to rise indefinitely, as something systemic but not unique to higher ed. Advances are moving so quickly that keeping pace with mobile demand results in exceeding campus network renewal budgets – if they even exist in the first place. You need to look at IT infrastructure the way you look at buildings, so that when you fund something, you’re thinking about how to renew it three, four or five years down the road.”

On top of managing capacity, ensuring network security is also crucial to any university, to keep users satisfied and operate as a responsible internet citizen.

“As far as a long-term approach to managing network security, we’re simply not there yet,” Tariq says. “We’ve always known university networks are more vulnerable than those of our private sector counterparts. We generally don’t control the number and type of devices that we allow on our networks. The question is: how do you balance security and still provide access?”

Dwight says the solution begins with clearly identifying the scope of the issue, which requires explaining to all interested parties what is at stake.

“We see more video instruction coming into classrooms via our networks. People are taking advantage of online resources in real-time. Our medical schools are working with medical dummies that interact on our networks, providing a learning experience for students with real-time feedback. And students in residence expect their networks to perform as they do at home,” he explains. “These aren’t extraordinary requests, but we have to come to grips with the fact that this is an evolving industry. Network advances and protocols are changing rapidly, and it’s a challenge to adapt given the explosive demand.”

3. Data analytics

Both Tariq and Dwight agree that firming our collective grip on data analytics will help us make wiser choices – both in IT specifically and as institutions generally.

“The competition for scarce students will become increasingly challenging,” Dwight says. “Those schools with a grip on analytics – around enrolments, retention, research and reporting – will have a significant advantage over those that don’t. Governments want to see more accountability and standardization across universities, and they want to see progress reported in a manner whereby everyone is using the same information.”

“Canada is the only industrialized country in the world where education is not nationally controlled,” Tariq adds. “Universities in the US have woken up a lot faster than we have because of the private nature of some of their institutions. But predictive analytics are key to our success here in Canada.

“We are lagging,” he continues. “Our data is decentralized and we all use different sets of analytics. There’s currently no way to run an information management strategy for a large university. We’re burdened by our past.”

4. Shared services

As a potential solution to the challenges that come with data centre consolidation, managing network capacity and security, and collecting and standardizing analytics, a number of Canadian PSE institutions are exploring the possibility of sharing IT services with one another.

“Institutions are clearly interested in shared services, but where do we start?” Dwight asks. “The only way to get interoperability between schools is to create improved standards, and there is no way to do this now – organizations all have unique environments because they’ve never had to share.”

“Bottom line, the traditional IT model no longer works,” Tariq adds. “The new model must include collaborations across PSE institutions on key services. We may also need to look at national organizations to broker some of these collaborations. We can’t sustain our current system alone, so we’re going to have to do it with other universities.”

5. Changing the value proposition of IT

It is clear that the higher ed IT landscape and the role of the university CIO in Canada are changing. To adapt, a rethinking of the role of CIO may need to occur – it’s what Tariq refers to as “changing the value proposition” of IT.

“I don’t see resource restrictions as necessarily bad,” Tariq says. “Sometimes they force rethinking, and that rethinking is important. A traditionalist might say our current challenges are insurmountable. But the type of CIO we need now is the one who asks: How do we transform ourselves to work within these new realities?”

“Does that require a fundamental restructuring of our offerings and organizations to meet the demands of where we are today?” Dwight asks. “Our IT teams now have to understand both the business and the technology, not just one or the other.” 

“The role of the CIO is not head geek – it’s a strategist,” Dwight adds. “One who should demonstrate those types of skills, having the ability to move around higher ed governance structures, but also develop new business models to lead them to new places. Traditionally, if the CIO has his or her head in the bits and bytes, they’re missing the picture.”

Both Dwight and Tariq identified the need for tomorrow’s CIOs to go “where the puck is going,” not where it’s been. If you spend too long rehashing the risks of moving your email system to the cloud, for example, you risk wasting time and being left behind.

What do you think are the most important focus areas for higher ed CIOs over the next five years? Have your voice heard – and hear what your peers have to say – at this month’s Member Meeting, October 15 to 17 at the University of Manitoba.

For more on “where the puck is going,” check out Dwight’s blog: Transform IT.